Star Wars, I love You… But “Solo” Needed to Stop Saying ‘I Know’
Solo is not the disaster some critics make out. But its gender and race politics leave a lot to be desired.
I’m going to start this review by telling you all the reasons I loved Solo: A Star Wars Story. Eventually I’m going to tell you all the things I thought it got wrong. But first, as an act of resistance against the unwritten rule that says women don’t write or talk about Star Wars because they should stick to writing about women’s film, I’m going to say why I thought Solo worked. Unlike a lot of other critics, I loved the nostalgia and the adventure, and in many ways, I thought Solo was a good film.
I Have a Good Feeling About This
As the opening intertitles tell us, this is a story about ‘a young man fighting for survival’ who ‘yearns to fly among the stars.’ Unlike the other nine canon Star Wars movies, Solo plants us firmly on the ground. There are no stars and these are no star wars: a fitting aesthetic for a spin-off film that is smaller and more claustrophobic that the ensemble Rogue One. A Correllian M-68 landspeeder flies close to the ground and is wedged between the walls of a hangar. People gather in tunnels and covered walkways. The railway-like conveyex has a track, and bridges, and is planted into the mountain. Han pilots the Millennium Falcon onto rocky terrain, dragging it across the surface rather than through the air. Even in a showdown with the Imperial fleet, the ship is enshrouded in cloud and dust that never threatens to expose it to the broader reaches of space.
That said, there are plenty of callbacks and in-jokes for nostalgic fans. There’s a thermal detonator that recalls the scene in Jabba’s palace in Return of the Jedi, a nudge-nudge-wink-wink use of the Imperial theme in the music for a recruitment ad, and a definitive answer to the question about whether Han shoots first.
When we’re finally reunited with the Millennium Falcon, with Chewie (Joonas Suotamo) and Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) in tow, the film really picks up. While overall there is a Western feel suited to the story of a space cowboy, the first forty minutes are a series of contrived set pieces like the walk-throughs of video games. We get the Grand Theft Auto chase, the Call of Duty war scene, the showdown with the boss of crime syndicate Crimson Dawn, Drydon Voss (Paul Bettany). But then we board the Falcon, and, as Han says in The Force Awakens, it’s like we’re finally home. The music, the soft light of the stars before they warp into hyperspace, the close-ups of pairs of hands (Lando and droid L3–37, played by Pheobe Waller-Bridge, and Han and Chewie) navigating the controls… this is welcome nostalgia. This is Star Wars giving you permission to feel like you did standing in the simulated forest of Endor queuing for the Star Tours ride as a kid.
There’s nothing wrong with this, despite critics sneering at Star Wars and its audience for daring to enjoy repetition and sentimentality. It’s as if we haven’t moved on from Robin Wood’s criticism of the film in 1986, when he claimed that Star Wars ‘reconstructed [the audience] as a child’ and wallowed in nostalgia. In this case the nostalgia is fun, joyous even, and I was happy to be swept along on that Falcon ride.
There’s also a lovely story arc that sees Han start out as a wide-eyed hot-shot pilot just like Luke. As he gets thrown into a pit by Imperial henchmen to face ‘The Beast’ and pulled through the mud it’s like watching Luke being submerged by the dianoga in A New Hope, or dragged into the wampa cave in The Empire Strikes Back, or facing the rancor in Return of the Jedi. It’s touching, too, to hear pirate Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) calling him ‘kid’, a term of endearment we know he’ll later bestow on his young Jedi friend. Solo is at pains to tell us that for all his bravado and bluster later on, Han, like Luke, is a hero.
But… because of course, there’s a ‘but’ — I was only starting out with the good bits to make a point, remember? The problem is that in trying so hard to explain how Han gets from a fresh-faced loveable rogue to charismatic but misogynistic Solo, the film throws its main woman protagonist Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) under the metaphorical Star Destroyer. It’s all her fault, the movie tells us, for not playing fair and for breaking his heart.
The Trouble with Solo
Now where have I heard this line before? Oh yes, that’s right, it’s been screamed at me a thousand times in newspaper headlines excusing terrorism. It’s the justification used by straight white men when women reject them and they commit mass murder. It’s the reason so-called ‘incels’ are demanding the ‘redistribution of sex.’ This film is incel logic dressed up with blaster pistols and aimed at twelve-year-old boys. So, much as I loved some aspects of the film, no, I don’t have a good feeling about this after all.
Qi’ra herself starts out with promise. She’s devious, a hustler, an adventurer, just like Han. Things quickly go wrong, though, when she’s caught by Crimson Dawn and put in service to Voss. Cast from the same mould as Leia — like all the Star Wars women, she’s a Princess Organa clone with her slight build, dark hair and large eyes — Qi’ra is nevertheless a welcome antidote to all the ‘good’ women as she double-crosses and bluffs her way through the film. But, held hostage by Crimson Dawn, and dressed in a sexy black noir-like number with a plunging neckline, even when she kills Voss, her fate is to serve yet another, more powerful man.
In the end, she’s a male-fantasy femme fatale, a bitch, the kind of woman men can hate because she won’t sleep with them, and they’ll say she deserves what’s coming to her. No wonder, the film says, Han ends up undermining Leia with his cheap space-cowboy sexism. Don’t blame Han, blame Qi’ra. She made him do it.
Then there’s Val (Thandie Newton), a cause for celebration as the first black woman with a major role in the canon films. Well, don’t rejoice just yet. Where she could have been a well-crafted and exciting character as a smuggler, a pirate, an outlaw, she’s woefully underused as Beckett’s lover and sidekick. She exists in the film only to throw shade at Han and to facilitate Beckett’s heist. After what can’t be more than twenty minutes on screen, she blows herself up, sacrificing herself to save the two white men and the Wookiee in their doomed heist. She survives less than a quarter of the film.
Lando presents another major problem in Solo. When Qi’ra describes him to Han before their first meeting, he cuts her off before she can describe Lando’s ‘prodigious…’. Prodigious what, exactly? Not his prodigious talent, wealth or any other word that you can say onscreen in a movie with a child audience. As a black man, his sexuality is revered and fetishized; as headlines recently announced, the writers have said the character is pansexual — which would be great news, if only we saw real evidence of this in the film. In fact, we don’t see Lando have any romantic relationships at all. He is said to be ‘prodigious’ and pansexual but he is contained in a narrative that gives him no outlet for his sexual desire. The only character he explicitly flirts with onscreen is an unnamed black woman. A safe choice, because it neutralises Lando’s sexuality: the black man is not a threat to white women.
Aside from Glover’s performance as Lando, which I loved, the best thing I can say about the film’s treatment of the character is that he is, especially in the first wonderful sabacc scene, well lit, and that he has a great relationship with feminist droid L3. He cares for her and (although perhaps begrudgingly) supports her feminism, telling other members of the crew not to look at her when she wants privacy. He risks his life trying to save her when she is shot. If one thing rings true about the film’s gender and race politics, it’s the need for an intersectional alliance between the feminist and the black man, who must look out for one another’s interests when no one else will.
L3’s feminism, however, is a problem. It is literally militant (she starts a war) and self-sacrificing (Like Val, she’s responsible for her own death) and another instance of the film’s disappointingly retro politics. Although like any hipster millennial with a love for avocado and a record collection, I’m down with the film’s analogue aesthetic, I’m also exhausted by the archaic ideology of the mid-twentieth century white boy who thinks shouty feminists are the butt of the joke. Casting Waller-Bridge was an inspired choice, here, because while women will likely sympathise with the character’s feminism as read through the lens of Fleabag, men will be able to dismiss it as yet another crazy woman yelling about equality.
It’s telling that when Lando records his adventures in a hologram diary (the ‘Calrissian Chronicles’) it’s also played as a joke, evidence of his arrogance and bravado. Yet Lando is a black man. He doesn’t even get a mention in the sequels and is effectively written out of Star Wars history. If he doesn’t archive his own story, no one else is going to — although I doubt I’m the only one longing for the Calrissian Chronicles to make it to the big screen.
Similarly, who will tell the story of Enfys Nest (Erin Kellyman), a woman of colour who leads resistance fighters in a crusade against Crimson Dawn and the Empire? She’s the first character in the canon films’ chronology to mobilise the band of ‘Rebels’ that will later include Leia, Luke, and Han himself. Who will tell her story? Where does she go next? And will Leia forever be synonymous with the Rebellion at the expense of her co-conspirator?
I think I know the answer to those questions. Ultimately, as Han yells to the crew of the Millennium Falcon as they struggle to propel themselves out of a vortex, ‘We’re getting dragged in a circle!’. As a Star Wars fan, I know the feeling. It’s one step forwards and two steps back; one woman of colour who survives but another that doesn’t; an absence of gold bikinis but instead a femme fatale.
Come on, Star Wars. Stop pandering to the fly boys. Women and people of colour make up a huge proportion of the fandom and invest time, energy and emotion in the franchise. It’s about time you told us that you love us back.